Wordsmith Wednesday: Natalie Diaz’ “My Brother at 3 A.M.”

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Our words this week are Natalie Diaz’ poem “My Brother at 3 A.M.” from her collection When My Brother Was an Aztec on Copper Canyon Press.

It reads:

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
        O God, he said. O God.
                He wants to kill me, Mom.
When Mom unlocked and opened the front door
at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.
        He wants to kill me, he told her,
                looking over his shoulder.
3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,
What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?
        He looked over his shoulder.
                The devil does. Look at him, over there.
She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.
        The devil, look at him, over there.
                He pointed to the corner house.
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
        My brother pointed to the corner house.
                His lips flickered with sores.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.
        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.
                It’s sticking out from behind the house.
O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
                O God, O God, she said.
Part of a collection wrapped around themes of family, addiction, and Native identity, Diaz builds a space that is spiritual in its commonality, the mirror between real and surreal shivering on the masculinity and meth use of a brother. This poem blends those worlds in a way that sets the fears of the addict and the addict adjacent next to each other, both seeing the devil in the flickering in the dead of reservation night. A silent audience, the darkness surrounds and absorbs everything between the mother and her son: the familiarity, the desperation, the confusion, the love. Linguistically, repetition wraps a peculiar calm around the frantic energy of the son, peeling back the mystery of addict behavior with a knowing hand both clinical and caring. Loving an addict can warp expectations of normality, deadening nerves past shock and exhausting empathy into apathy. Diaz expresses this beautifully through her approach to the erratic, irrational behavior of the poem’s eponymous brother: her descriptions of the man’s addiction, much like the behavior of the mother, is without exaggeration or judgement. Her’s is the deadened, hesitant compassion of one that’s seen the devil too often to be still be scared of his tail, let alone the spitting lips he splits. – NR

Natalie Diaz
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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kaveh Akbar’s “An Apology”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is Kaveh Akbar’s poem “An Apology“ from his collection entitled Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

It reads:

“Lord, I meant to be helpless, sex-
less as a comma, quiet as
cotton floating on a pond. Instead,
I charged into desire like a
tiger sprinting off the edge of
the world. My ancestors shot bones
out of cannons and built homes where
they landed. This is to say, I
was born the king of nothing, pulled
out from nothing like a carrot
slipped from soil. I am still learning
the local law: don’t hurt something
that can smile, don’t hold any grief
except your own. My first time—brown
arms, purple lips, lush as a gun—-
we slumped into each other’s thighs.
She said duset daram, mano
tanha bezar—I love you, leave
me alone. See? There I go scab-
picking again. You should just hang
me in a museum. I’ll pose
as a nasty historical
facet, wave at the cameras, lecture
only in the rhetoric of
a victim. As a boy I tore out
the one-hundred-and-nine pages
about Hell in my first Qur’an.
Bountiful bloomscattering Lord,
I could feel you behind my eyes
and under my tongue, shocking me
nightly like an old battery.
What did I need with Hell? Now that
I’ve sucked you wrinkly like a thumb,
I can barely be bothered to
check in. Will I ever even know
when my work is done? I’m almost
ready to show you the mess I’ve made.”

“I’m sorry” tends to show up in our everyday vocabulary, similarly to “umm” and “like” and “what’s your name again?” when we’ve been taught to be apologetic for who we are and how we feel. We find ourselves in a tug of war between what we think, want to say, how we want to act, and what is expected of us based on social, sexual, religious, et al expectations. As much as we want/hope/try to fit into the mold or perception that our parents/friends/significant others have of us, when that is not who we truly are, our thoughts and actions aren’t always able to align. We speak out of turn, we feel too eager, too energetic, too prepared. We say our sorrys.

We want so badly to be someone else or discover who we are, learn from our past, but during that process we find out we are is a whole bunch of wires all mixed up together never connecting to the right plug. We are human and we want a range of uncertain desires that make us feel like pieces of puzzles that don’t fit together, that we’ve cut apart to line up. This mess is something we must love first before being able to present to others. We must find our roots, our initial selves, and hold fast or it will always be an inward fight. – KK

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Eileen Myles’ “An American Poem”

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Our words this week come from the end of Eileen Myles’ poem “An American Poem” from their 1991 collection, Not Me.

The excerpt reads:

“I am a Kennedy.
Shouldn’t we all be Kennedys?
This nation’s greatest city
is home of the business-
man and home of the
rich artist. People with
beautiful teeth who are not
on the streets. What shall
we do about this dilemma?
Listen, I have been educated.
I have learned about Western
Civilization. Do you know
what the message of Western
Civilization is? I am alone.
Am I alone tonight?
I don’t think so. Am I
the only one with bleeding gums
tonight. Am I the only
homosexual in this room
tonight. Am I the only
one whose friends have
died, are dying now.
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
Are working,
are healthy, should
survive, and are
normal. Are you
normal tonight? Everyone
here, are we all normal.
It is not normal for
me to be a Kennedy.
But I am no longer
ashamed, no longer
alone. I am not
alone tonight because
we are all Kennedys.
And I am your President.”

Assuming a fictional role in an American political dynasty, Myles allows themselves to interrogate identity, both personal and national, in a voice that naturally oscillates between sincerity and sarcasm. A real-life blue collar New Englander, they use autobiographical content about being a young queer poet experiencing the class contradictions of New York City juxtaposed with their assumed identity as a closeted member of the (in)famous Kennedy family to complicate the typical idea of success as power, beauty, wealth, and fame with the realities of the mass, of the struggle, of the poor and diseased, of the imperfect normal. With this poem, Eileen Myles (who ran a campaign as the first “openly female” presidential write-in campaign the year after this poem was published) empowers the average in the face of the elite, pushes on cracks in persistent political and social structures, and challenges the idea of Americanness itself, all in a style that fosters messy love and honest dialogue rather than nihilism or didacticism. As the actual Kennedy family continues to whet its elite white teeth on our country’s political stage, Myles’ reminder to recognize the whole beautiful, bruised, transforming face of this nation as its truer identity is one that can continue to guide us as we navigate into a more empowered, inclusive, and just image of America. – NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”

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Our words this week are from Carl Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.”

They are:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities”

I am not a well-travelled person, but nowhere feels like Chicago to me. I’ve ran as a kid through its tiny south suburban backyards and scraps of forest, ridden my bike down over busted curbs on avenues that stretch straight from the city to the cornfields, started high school nights in farmland and ended them in a packed basement venue on the north side, cruised slow down side streets on the south and west sides, felt intimidated and invigorated by the bustle of downtown. I’ve driven down Lake Shore at night and stopped to spit in the water. My family has called no other place in this country home for generations. Late third wave immigrants, they walked the same streets as Sandburg. At least some of my family butchered hogs in the Union Yards. There is still a coarseness and a strength to the city not acknowledged in campaign speech propaganda or in the talking points of ignorant media pundits. Outside forces stay trying to exploit the city, but they underestimate its cunning. They mishear the vitality in its high hats and bass knocks, in its feedback and raised fists, in its screeching airbrakes and late night cries. They sneer at its schools and desperate students, at its streets and crying mothers, at its sheer determination to keep existing in face of forces that want it to fail, inside and out.

But I’ve tasted giardiniera submerged in red sauce on a summer night. I’ve smelled exhaust mixed with sweat and something sweet cooking inside. I’ve seen the wonder in the eyes of a child at Kershaw Elementary. I’ve felt the warmth in the smile and salutation of the cashier at Harold’s. I’ve heard the ancient rhythms of buckets beating out the song of the city. A century after Sandburg, Chicago still sneers proudly above big shoulders at the charlatans and cowards that keep its name in their mouth.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Danny Brown’s “Fields”

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The words we’re highlighting this week are from Danny Brown’s song “Fields” from his 2011 album XXX on Fool’s Gold Records.

The lines are:

“It’s like they all forgot man, nobody care about us
That why we always end up in prison instead of college
Living in the system, working kitchen for chump change
Lost in the streets, niggas playing that gun game
Where nobody wins, just a bunch of mommas losing
Dead body in the field, nobody heard the shooting
We living in the streets where the options is limited
Cause its burnt building instead of jobs and businesses”

When I first saw/heard Danny Brown in my dorm room back in 2011, I was immediately drawn to his whole thing: busted tooth smile, weirdo hair, rock star attitude. His approach all felt genuine, like he was in his own lane lyrically/stylistically and was inviting you to ride passenger as he swerved full speed. That’s why I’m highlighting a chunk of a verse that juxtaposes the blown out bizarro bravado Brown is typically known for. The media loves to hold up statistics of violence in major cities, especially within black communities, but hardly ever makes the logical jump away from race to socioeconomics. Urban poverty, like that found in Danny Brown’s home city of Detroit, breeds a culture of drugs/gangs/violence because to some those are the unfortunate means to the most American end: money. When traditional economies don’t support citizen’s families or simply don’t exist, alternative economies emerge. Through these words, Brown provides a window for outsiders to see the root causes of the crime scenes they see on the nightly news, humanizing harsh realities that networks sensationalize for the story. If politicians started listening to poetry instead of pundits, maybe they’d learn that paychecks do more to curb violence than police do.

– NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Nayyirah Waheed’s “salt”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a poem from Nayyirah Waheed’s collection salt.

It reads:

“remember,
you were a writer
before
you ever
put
pen to paper.
just because you were not writing
externally.
does not mean you were not writing
internally.”

It is often difficult to remind ourselves of this. We do not stop or start becoming a writer at any point just because we aren’t physically writing. Our minds are constantly writing novels of their own, coming up with stories, drafting scenarios, reiterating our feelings and thoughts, all internally. This is the most constant and unrestrictive form of writing. In this form we do not hold back, there is no one around to judge but us. We/society is the only one that holds us accountable to this arbitrary definition of a writer. We are always, constantly, writing, do not let the physicality that is placed behind writing hold you back from being/feeling productive as a writer. We all do it in different forms at different times in our lives. How is not what is important, it’s the fact that we do that is.

– KK

Nayyirah

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kendrick Lamar’s “LUST.”

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Our words this week come from Kendrick Lamar’s song “LUST.” from his latest record “DAMN.”

The words are:

“We all woke up, tryna tune to the daily news
Lookin’ for confirmation, hopin’ election wasn’t true
All of us worried, all of us buried, and the feeling’s deep
None of us married to his proposal, make us feel cheap
Still and sad, distraught and mad, tell the neighbor ’bout it
Bet they agree, parade the streets with your voice proudly
Time passin’, things change
Revertin’ back to our daily programs
Stuck in our ways, lust”

On a collection of songs built around breathing life and form into broad human themes, Lamar engages lust not just as a sexual concept but also one of desiring the easy, the pleasurable, the lazily indulgent. The self-centered default. He reflects on this concept in men, women, and himself before dropping the above words at the end of the final verse. These lines reflect something essential and troubling about the recent US presidential election and the national response in the months that followed. After clenched stomachs and disbelief came genuine discussion and community building efforts, energetic and directed and productive. But sustained, unsexy resistance is hard. Legs start to hurt and throats go hoarse. Victories are small and meaningful outcomes require a marathon. Time passes. Normalization begins. Constant engagement and outrage get exhausting and complacency starts to return to those privileged enough to afford it and to some that can’t. Back to the default. So, while it may be human nature to seek the comfort of the self-centered action, real growth requires personal sacrifice for collective progress, less lust and more love. I’m definitely guilty of making the selfish choice in the face of greater injustice, but I’ve also made sacrifices to reach out and pull others up. It’s right, but it’s hard. Damn.

– NR

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